Words: Rebecca Meloche
Photography: James Betz-Gray
Montreal’s latest bar scene trend – speakeasies – brings the city’s nightlife back to a time when alcohol was prohibited in many parts of North America and people had to hide away to be entertained. Interestingly, Montreal’s nightlife history did not include these hidden bars, but now one can find over 25 speakeasies located across the island. However, one element that is consistent between today’s nightlife and the past: Montrealer’s love to go out.
Nancy Marrelli, archivist emerita at Concordia University and the author of Stepping Out: The Golden Age of Montreal Night Clubs, says that back in the 1920s Montreal’s nightlife was one of possibilities. One could go from small local clubs to very expensive hotel rooms with private entertainers. This is true to this day.
There’s a certain joie de vivre in Montreal that I think we still have. People enjoy life here,” said Marrelli.
The 1920s came with a lot of political and social change in North America. City life became the norm. People were moving away from their farms and into the busy and vibrant lifestyle that is city living. But in places where alcohol was prohibited, nightlife was largely curtailed.
From 1920 to 1933, the United States had a nationwide constitutional ban on alcohol. The production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages were put to an end. In Canada, the government had a different outlook. Every province varied and in Quebec there was no ban, rather, alcohol became regulated by the Commission des liqueurs de Quebec, or as we know it today, the SAQ.
The result? Nightlife in Quebec flourished during the prohibition era. Cabarets and burlesque clubs were found all across the city. Performers such as Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson flew in to perform in clubs across Montreal. Jazz clubs such as Rockhead’s Paradise in Little Burgundy became known globally. Booking agencies in the city were kept busy ensuring that every club and dinner bar had someone to entertain the people.
Photograph of an advertising brochure for Connie’s Inn, 1933. Myron Sutton fonds, Concordia University Library, Special Collections.
The Golden Age in Montreal was one of bright lights and stars. Where other cities withered away from the entertainment scene, Montreal thrived. “It was not like a stayed, censored entertainment scene. It was wide open. There was all kinds of things going on,” says Marrelli.
Marrelli says cities across the United States became envious of Montreal. Rather than travelling, storeowners and business patrons came up with the idea of a hidden bar – the speakeasy. These secret clubs featured jazz entertainers and dancers. They were often located in underground establishments or hidden within stores and businesses.
But in Montreal, entertainers did not have to go underground and were living the dream, performing almost every night in different locations. Small local bars and high-end dinner clubs, such as the Normandie Roof located on top of the Mount Royal Hotel, thrived. However, the golden age of Montreal nightlife came with an expiration date.
Photograph of the Normandie Roof atop the Mount Royal Hotel in 1937. Joe Bell fonds at Concordia University Library, Special Collections.
“The 1950s changed everything because of TV. People stayed home. They didn’t have to go out for entertainment in the same way,” said Marrelli. People were staying home in front of their television screens rather than going out and being entertained by live music and dinner parties.
During the 1950s booking agencies began to slowly evaporate. A small club and folk scene was slowly emerging while other entertainment forms were dying off. According to Marrelli, this time period was the least interesting for the nightclub scene. “Something was dying and something was not fully formed yet.”
The 1950s might have had an impact on the nightlife scene but, according to Marrelli, the nightlife in Montreal will continue to thrive. “People are always going to find ways to entertain themselves. There’s always going to be an entertainment scene. People will go to things that they find enjoyable, so you’re always going to have something happening that’s going to be interesting,”
Stepping out a Friday or Saturday evening on Crescent Street or Saint-Laurent Boulevard one can see that Montreal’s nightlife has not died out. Montrealer’s will likely always find a way to get out and find something to do. Whether its enjoying the cold winter at Igloofest or ringing in the summer breeze on a terrace, the entertainment scene in Montreal is not going anywhere.
“Montrealer’s love to go out. It’s a very sociable city. We love to be out there. […] We’re not all work, this is not Toronto.”